Natural Beauty

*Note: This post is a little late. I’m home in Nova Scotia now, but I wrote this while I was in the Dominican! Enjoy!

As I sit in my bed in a palapa this evening, under my mosquito netting, the world around me is singing. It is a constant rhthym of crickets with the symbolic chirps of various varieties of frogs whose music crescendos and minuends with the fresh tranquil breeze.

Here I am in the mountains between Puerto Plata and Santiago, Dominican Republic on the Ruta Panoramica which I believe is the next big area to become an off the beaten path destination. And, wow, is it ever beautiful! For all of those people who think Dominican Republic is all about Punta Cana beaches, it is time that you discovered more!

I’m staying at Tubagua Plantation Eco Lodge, hospitably welcomed by the owner, Tim Hall. Originally from Montreal, Canada, he’s been living in the Dominican since 1983 and opened the Lodge about four and a half years ago.

When I arrived, I followed a lovely little stone pathway to a kitchen area where there were two or three women. I asked for Tim and one of them led me to his nearby office on the terrace of one of the palapa buildings.

It isn’t your normal reception area to lodging for the night, but soon I understood how it all fit in to the beautiful rustic essence of the entire experience.

Tim gave me a warm welcome and then showed me to the main palapa that functions as a meal hall and meeting area. Here we sat and talked for the next couple of hours about his story, his venture into creating Tubagua Eco Plantation and his involvement in the Ruta Panoramica.

Tim Hall, Tubagua Eco Plantation, Dominican Republic
Tim Hall, Tubagua Eco Plantation, Dominican Republic

Check out the amazing view! I guess this is what you should expect from the top of a mountain! Pure nature and beauty!

Tubagua Eco Plantation, Dominican Republic
Tubagua Eco Plantation, Dominican Republic

One of the staff brought us a few nachos with freshly made delicious salsa and we continued to chat away about Tim’s adventures in the Dominican Republic over the last 20+ years. The hospitality was grand and Tim was quick to offer me a beer, wine, or a meal, but I wasn’t hungry and I can only wish that I liked beer or wine, but I truly don’t, so it should not be wasted on me. Tim, however, enjoys his cigars and wine!

Over the years, this Canadian turned Dominican had quite the story. Way back when, he was working for the Montreal Gazette and a Toronto newspaper and had the opportunity to travel to the north coast of the Dominican Republic to do a travel story on the area. He revisited the area a couple of times, but then decided to move to the area permanently.

Over his 20+ years in the country he listed a wide variety of jobs that he had held and stressed that most people who move to the Dominican have to have several jobs just to make ends meet. It is not a place to get rich, but if you are rich, it is a wonderful place to live! His jobs covered everything from travel writing, to co-owning a local newspaper, a security monitoring company, restaurant owner and now, owner and creator of Tubagua Eco Plantation and honorary Consular General for the north coast.

He explained that he had the vision for the eco lodge and started building it in small steps about four and a half years ago. Initially he built one building that would sleep six people. This was used for his family at first, but since expanding it is used for a combination of where he sleeps and sometimes the extra bedroom is for guests.

When it was time to expand, he had visions of how everything could be tied together with stone pathways and open air palapas for a truly natural experience.

Today, four and a half years after starting, Tubagua Eco Plantation has the capacity to host 30 people. There are large group accommodations, as well as two individual palapas that are great for small groups or for families, as well as one special suite offering privacy for a romantic getaway,

Tim gave me a tour of all of the buildings and gave me a choice to sleep in a palapa or in the ‘guest’ house. My second night, I would have to sleep in the guest house because a group of tourism students was coming in and he’d need all of the beds in the palapas for them. I decided, for the full experience that my first night I would make myself at home in an open air palapa.

Accommodations, Tubagua Eco Plantation, Dominican Republic
Accommodations, Tubagua Eco Plantation, Dominican Republic

We sat down for supper at around 7:30pm. It was fettucini with a lovely cream sauce, a nice fresh salad with a local cheese and mango, toast and cake with chocolate syrup for dessert.

Over supper, Tim and I discussed his business more and his plans for growing the Eco Lodge. This then led to conversations about how we might be able to work together … and once again I am back to thinking about offering photo tours in the Dominican.

Before retiring for the evening, Tim reminded me that the sunrise would likely wake me up as the sun would beam in proudly through the non-existent walls of my palapa. To be honest, I couldn’t think of a better way to wake up!

The Taxi Chronicles – Part 6 – Conquering a mountain by moto

Conquering a mountain by moto

Local transportation is always an adventure and you just simply have to go with the flow. When I made plans to go to Tubagua for the weekend, I had great directions from the owner, Tim, saying that I needed to take a carro publico from Sosua to Gran Parada and then a moto concho to Tubagua – el hotel el Tim en kilometre 19.

I had purposely tried to pack light for the weekend, but that is hard when you are carrying photography gear for work! I had my camera gear in one back pack and my clothes in another, so I thought that maybe it might be better to take a taxi rather than a carro publico and then a moto conch. I got Tanya, the school director to call a taxi that Tim had recommended and thank goodness she did because she had a difficult time communicating with him and she speaks fluent spanish! I wouldn’t have made it past Hola! In the end, we discovered that the taxi was only from Gran Parada to Tubagua, not from Sosua. So, off I headed on my local transportation adventure.

I left Sosua around 4:45pm from my Spanish school, Casa Goethe. I walked about six or eight blocks to the carro publico ‘station’. By station, I mean one area where the carros line up and fill up with people before taking off. It is actually quite organized as the cars are often in a line.

I explained to him, in very slow Spanish, that I needed to go toward Puerto Plata, but get out at Gran Parada. I asked him how much and he told me 50 Pesos. I thought he told me 500 though so I told him that was too much and he dropped it to 45 Pesos. HA HA HA YAY me! I sure drive a hard bargain!

They asked me to put my bags in the trunk. This was scary for me because I was carrying $10 000 in camera equipment! I didn’t really want to let it out of my site, but impossible to keep your bags on your lap inside a carro publico. There just isn’t enough room. It didn’t help that the carro publico was a smaller car than usual which meant that it was nearly impossible to fit the four standard people in the back seat. However, somehow we all squished in on top of each other. I was sitting in the back seat, on the edge of the seat, holding on to the head rest in front of me for support against the bumps and turns. I bravely explained to the driver (in Spanish) that I needed to get out at Gran Parada and tried to explain that I needed to be in the direction to Santiago. He didn’t understand and then he thought I was going TO Santiago … So, I had to re-explain and a couple of the locals in the car kicked in with their Spanish explanations too. The driver said he understood, the little ‘neon’ size car was packed with seven of us and off we went.

By about five minutes into the drive one of my legs was bruised from banging against the back of the arm rest, the other foot was asleep and I was tired of holding on to the head rest of the seat in front of me! Comfortable is not a word to describe this form of transportation.

About ten minutes into the drive, someone got out … unfortunately from the front seat, so no relief for the four of us who were sardined into the back seat. The total drive took about 15 minutes from Sosua to Gran Parada. The other gentleman that I was sitting almost on top of, and who tried to sell me cashews when I got in the car, told me (in Spanish) that he thought I needed to get out. I panicked a little and asked the driver. He had misunderstood and still thought I was heading to Santiago, but now he understood I needed Gran Parada and indeed, we had just passed Gran Parada! He pulled over, let me out and I grabbed my stuff from the trunk. Phew! It was still there!

I headed back down the road about 200 meters to where the moto conchos were all lined up. As soon as I got out of the car a guy on a moto concho was trying to get my attention. I wasn’t giving him the ok until I got closer and could see him and his bike though. As I approached, they both looked acceptable (man and bike), so I gave a nod and he immediately sped off to pick me up on the opposite side of the road.

I explained (in Spanish) that I needed to go to Tubagua and he immediately said ‘El Hotel de Tim?’ Phew! At least he knew where I was headed.

I slung my 30 pounds of camera gear on to my pack and my light weight backpack with clothing on my front and awkwardly tried to balance while swinging my leg over the bike. It was going to be a long drive to kilometre 19 on a bad road with backpacks on front and back! Ha! Little did I know that it was going to get worse!

The first part of the road was a little bumpy. My driver skillfully avoided as many of the bumps as he could and I felt fairly safe on the back of the bike. Then the road got a little worse and was a little bumpier. The road is paved but has sections which are only dirt or really bad pot holes. Cars go very slowly through these areas as they cannot avoid the bumps. Moto conchos go a little faster because they can weave easier.

I’m not sure at what kilometre we left flat road and started up the mountain, but I would guess maybe kilometre five. As we started up the mountain, I reached around and held on to the handle behind my bum. I really had no choice as I had 30 lbs of camera gear making me ‘back heavy’ and I couldn’t hold on to the moto concho driver because we were separated by the backpack on my chest. As the incline steepened, as did my fear. Now, I wasn’t really ‘scared’, more just uncomfortable. I seriously was going up a mountain with 30 lbs of stuff pulling me backwards and trying to hold on with one hand behind my bum, my stomach muscles tightened and my thighs probably gripping the guys legs pretty tightly. Let’s not forget the clenched teeth too!

By about kilometre 10 and still going up the mountain I started to wonder if I could clench all of these muscles and hold on for another nine kilometres. I had a hot / cold flash as I thought about the possibility of falling backwards off the bike with no helmet on … and I clenched my legs tighter.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have been afraid at all if I was holding on to the guy in front of me or if I didn’t have the 30 lbs of camera gear on my back. I’m sure the moto concho guy would have loved for me to wrap my arms around him for the 19 kilometre drive, but, alas, it isn’t really appropriate to hold on with a death grip to your taxi driver! So, I refrained.

At some point as we bounced around and dodged pot holes, I asked my driver for his name. Surprisingly I only had to ask twice to understand that it was Miguel. I didn’t understand much else of what he said though. More because of the wind than anything though.

Shortly before arriving at Tubagua, Miguel pulled over and said hello to a woman who came over to the moto concho and hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I had no idea what was going on … why was my moto concho stopping on the side of the road to introduce me to a woman? Was I supposed to get off here? If so, where was the lodge? And, did he really know where he was taking me? He told me I wasn’t getting off there, and after the introduction was done, we continued on, up up up the hill for another couple of kilometres where he pulled over again by a small hut with a group of young guys sitting around.

I tried to get off the bike, but one of my backpack straps had gotten caught during the ride. Luckily one of the guys rushed to my assistance to untangle me. My dismount from the bike was certainly less than graceful with my front and back, back packs! And then, when both feet were on the ground I was stuck with a cord between my legs and it was stuck on the other side of the bike. For a brief moment I was having a flash back to my Galapagos Adventures with the Lifejacket Complications.

The young man quickly freed the cord and I was able to move. I asked ‘Cuanto cuesta’ (how much) and the same young man responded ‘One hundred’ (Pesos that is, not dollars). A moment later he was sitting down talking to his friends (in Spanish) and telling them that I speak English. Being brave, I piped up … ‘And Spanish too’. Well, I guess they were impressed! I then lost my bravery and followed up with ‘poquito’, meaning a little.

They then pointed up the hill and off I started trekking up the dirt road, to where, I still didn’t know. I hadn’t seen a sign for the Lodge and from the bottom of the hill I couldn’t really see anything that resembled a lodge. None the less, up the hill I went with two backpacks. I was happy to be on my own two feet and excited that I had conquered the mountain by moto concho!

The Tubagua hillside community

This morning, I took the opportunity to walk around the roads close to the Tubagua Plantation on my own, looking for photo opportunities. I was blessed with beautiful vistas and friendly people along my travels.

I headed out a nearby dirt road where the owner of Tubagua had told me I would find a few local houses. I thought it would be interesting, so I threw on my sneakers (so glad I packed them) and headed up and down the rolling hills on a dirt road that was hard to walk on, let alone drive on!

The hills were a more than a little bigger than I expected. As I headed down my first hill I was already wondering how I would ever find the energy to climb back up it.

Tubagua, Dominican Republic
Tubagua, Dominican Republic
Off the beaten path – Local road where I walked and met locals.

Then, I headed up and down, up and down, up and down several large hills. At the top of each hill was a spectacular view of mountains and fields in every direction.

Tubagua, Dominican Republic
Tubagua, Dominican Republic
Tubagua, Dominican Republic
Tubagua, Dominican Republic

I walked for about half an hour, taking photos, saying ‘Hola’ to the locals. When I got to the big white house at the top of a hill I decided I had better turn around so that I could make it back up all of the hills on the way home. Besides, I couldn’t see anything past the white house, so I thought it was a good place to stop.

Tubagua, Dominican Republic
Tubagua, Dominican Republic

On my return walk, I stopped at a house where a young boy was cutting into a coconut and asked if I could take his photo. He immediately stood up, put his coconut and machete away and grinned proudly. I explained that I actually wanted his photo while he was preparing the coconut. So, he posed again for me and I got this lovely photo of him.

Tubagua, Dominican Republic
Tubagua, Dominican Republic

I then asked if I could take a picture of the family, as there was a woman standing in the doorway smiling at me. This was the boy’s aunt. So, I began to gather them and another girl together for the photo when more people came walking up the road. I politely said ‘Hola’, and then asked them if I could take their photo. One of the young men immediately spoke to me in English – good English! I politely told him that I needed to practice my Spanish, so he slowly continued a Spanish conversation with me.

Tubagua, Dominican Republic
Tubagua, Dominican Republic

Unfortunately, after my long and interesting day, I can’t recall the names of these two young men, but before they continued on down the road, they did take a moment to tell me that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses and they were in the area talking about the bible.

When we were done chatting, I turned around ready to now take the family photo that I had wanted to capture, but now two women were sitting talking to the aunt and preaching the word of the Lord. The quickly invited me to sit down, and as not to be impolite, I obliged and sat down under the big tree with them. The younger of the two women politely handed me a booklet with a message in English.

Tubagua, Dominican Republic
Tubagua, Dominican Republic

They continued to talk, but I didn’t understand much of what they were saying. I guess I haven’t learned much for religious words in my studies so far! The older woman didn’t want me to take her photo, so I didn’t, but she did however offer me some fresh almonds that she was carrying with her. Yes, I’m aware I shouldn’t take food from strangers, but, well, I did! And the almonds were very yummy!

When the ladies left, I took a moment to take a couple of photos of the family. Unfortunately I couldn’t explain posing very well, so it isn’t my best family portrait ever, but then I got them to hug and I liked the second one better.

Tubagua, Dominican Republic
Tubagua, Dominican Republic
Tubagua, Dominican Republic
Tubagua, Dominican Republic

I sat and chatted with these folks for awhile and they were very patient with my slow conversation and encouraged me by telling me that my Spanish was quite good and that they could understand everything I was saying. YAY ME!

What a lovely little solo adventure I had this morning!

My first Tubaga morning

This morning I woke up around 7:30am to the sounds of birds chirping and rustling in the grass as little geckos of all sizes passed by. I rolled over to my right, opened my eyes and immediately awoke to the grand view from the top of this mountain.

Tubagua Eco Lodge
Tubagua Eco Lodge

I chose to sleep in a palapa last night as it was going to be occupied tonight and I would be sleeping in a more enclosed cabin. I figured while I was here, I should take advantage of the palapa experience.

Tubagua Eco Lodge Palapa Accommodations
Tubagua Eco Lodge Palapa Accommodations

Let me explain a little about the palapas. They are small structures, similar to a small cottage with thatched roofs. The one I stayed in had no walls, just tarp to keep the wind and rain out. It is like camping, but with a bed and a roof. It is amazing because you are sleeping in the fresh air with the soothing sounds of nature all around you. And, amazingly, there were not nearly as many insects and critters as I expected. Tim, the owner had also told me if I see any ‘ghosts’ or anything that scares me, to scream like a girl. I assured him that would be no problem! If something scared me, I would be sure to scream … like a girl.

I wrapped the mosquito net around my king size bed, checked under the covers for any creatures that might bite my toes, and then tentatively crawled in.

I wondered if I might be scared to sleep after my cockroach incident earlier in my trip, but after writing for awhile, and my lack of sleep from my night out in Cabarete on Thursday, when my head hit the pillow at 10:30pm, I was sound asleep.

After rising to the beauty of nature all around me, I headed to the bathroom for a shower to start my day. Now the shower is an experience all of it’s own! It is a small room with three walls made of bamboo, so there are spaces between them where you can see through, although it is obscured by some greenery outside. The fourth ‘wall’ is an open concept looking out over the grand view of the lush vegetation and sugarcane plantations of a local community.

It takes a little getting used to that when you sit down on the toilet you are staring directly into nature. And, when you get ready to shower, you strip off just as if you were in the woods.

Having said that, once you get past the fact that one wall of the building is completely open, it is beautiful to shower in the open, fresh air and stare at the stunning view.

Tubagua Eco Lodge
Tubagua Eco Lodge – the open concept bathroom

Jackie prepared fresh fruit, cereal, a fried egg and bacon for me for breakfast which I ate in the main group area. Again, enjoying the spectacular view.

A group of tourism students arrived to settle in before heading out on a tour along Ruta Panoramica. I spoke briefly to a few of them and then I decided to go adventuring!